Xiamen’s Gulangyu Islet: In a quiet car-free haven, cafe culture thrives alongside Fujianese seafood stalls

China, famed for its intricate teahouse culture, is fast developing its own coffee culture. Far beyond the doors of mass-markete Starbucks and Costa outlets in the big cities, China’s new generation of coffee lovers is giving rise to countless small cafes where you can relax over a perfectly brewed cup of cappuccino and an exquisite slice of cheese cake. Xiamen’s Gulangyu is a car-free island where “Sino-Mediterranean” villas, townhouses and gardens dating from the days of colonial-era European concessions line narrow twisting lanes. A perfect break from the hectic traffic-jammed frenzy of China’s big-city streets, Gulangyu has the feel of a laid-back art colony outpost where bed & breakfasts, mom & pop seafood restaurants and, of course, great little coffee shops make for hours of pleasant exploration.

Spend a few moments with the slideshow above for a taste of Gulangyu’s charm and click through the jump below for more on the island’s cafes, including two that come highly recommended based on our family trip over Christmas. We spent the better part of two days wandering about Gulangyu and barely scratched the surface. It seemed that around every corner (and there are a lot of crazy corners in the town’s labyrinthine street layout) another little cafe or seafood joint presented itself, and they all looked good. We were quite busy keeping up with our two-year-old daughter, who made the most of the street’s lack of cars (and scooters and bicycles and all other wheeled vehicles aside from pushcarts) to exhaust herself–and us–by exploring every nook & cranny at high speed (before crashing and burning in an epic episode of overtired-toddler tantrum-throwing).

When we could get the girl to finally slow down (or fall asleep), we managed to hit a few spots. Here are two that come highly recommended:

We pulled into Cantone hungry, tired and a bit cold after a morning of exploring on Christmas Day. We ordered cappuccinos and cheese cake. Then we waited… and waited. The wait was pleasant enough, sitting in one of the clean, simply decorated but artsy space inside an old Gulangyu townhouse. The staff were pleasant, and it’s not surprising to learn that Cantone is a labor of love shared by friends from Guangzhou with a passion for music, art and coffee. Our order arrived just after our daughter fell asleep in her stroller and we were in heaven. The best cappuccino we’ve had in five years in China, and pretty close to the best we’ve ever had. A thick foamy head led to a beautifully balanced cup. Strong but silky smooth. The cheesecake was just as good. Often, Chinese desserts are too sweet and airy for Western palates, but this dense slab of New York-style cheesecake was spot on.

When we first passed the entrance of the Yangtao Hotel and caught a glimpse of its courtyard cafe, we knew we’d wind up there. Sure enough, after a few hours of toddler-driven tourism, we found our way back to this hilltop retreat not far from the Xiamen Piano Museum. With our darling little tsunami of youthful energy finally sleeping (again) in her stroller, we sat down ready for something to calm the nerves. We opted to forgo caffeine this time, ordering a beautiful candle-warmed glass carafe of flower tea to go with a steady stream of well-made sandwiches, served in bite-sized sections (I have a big mouth; others might need two or even three bites). Try the club. Next time we visit Gulangyu, we’ll might just stay at the Yangtao Hotel, though there are so many great little places to stay on the island it’s hard to say.

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